Black Lesbians and Gays:
by Sidney Brinkley
The 1970’s were exciting years for the Gay movement. In the decade following the 1969 Stonewall riot, Lesbians and Gay men were organizing in increasing numbers, demanding freedom and equal rights, culminating in the first national Gay March on Washington in October 1979. For much of that time the public face of the Gay movement was White. Whites comprised the overwhelming majority in the political and activist organizations of the day. “Gay” was synonymous with “White” and White Gays became the de facto spokesperson for Lesbians and Gay men of all colors.
Billy JonesHowever, in the background a number of African American Gay men and Lesbians across the country (as well as Gays of other colors) were also coming out in the midst of this politically charged atmosphere, blending the new Gay political thought with their Black identity, forging a unique Black Gay consciousness. Washington, DC, for all the obvious reasons, was becoming increasingly important as the legal battle for Gay rights gathered momentum. Billy Jones was keenly interested in the Gay/Lesbian civil rights movement and felt he couldn’t be the only Black Gay who had an interest but the groups were predominately White.
“At the time very few African Americans were affiliated with Gay political groups,” he said, “and I wanted to bring together Gay, Bi, Lesbian, and Transpersons who had a strong desire to become politically involved in the Gay/Lesbian civil rights movement. It was an attempt to go beyond the agenda of the Black Gay Social Clubs of the day and address the issue of homophobia in Black communities and organizations.”
Mr. Jones began by placing ads in the DC Gay papers. Meanwhile, in Baltimore, Maryland, Louis Hughes had been involved with a group named the Baltimore Gay Alliance since 1975. In 1977 he saw an ad that Jones had placed in the Washington Blade and invited him to come to Baltimore to speak about Black Gays.
“Billy lit the fuse for organizing,” Mr. Hughes said. “From 1977 going into 1978 I remember Billy going around lighting fires, saying we should have a Black Gay organization. Delores Berry came out at that time. And we began organizing the DC/Baltimore Coalition.”
In April of 1978 Mr. Jones – who lived with his wife and three children in Columbia, Maryland – held the early meetings of the Baltimore-Washington Coalition in the basement of the Washington, DC Youth Service Agency he worked for at the time.
“About six months after the Coalition was formed, there was an agreement to split the organization into two groups,” Mr. Jones said. “We formed the Baltimore Coalition of Black Gay Men and Women and the D.C. Coalition of Black Gay men and Women.”
In 1978 Gil Gerald was a frustrated would-be Gay political activist. Excited by what was going on around him in the city, and wanting to be a part of it, he was put-off by a predominately White movement – in a city with a majority Black population.
Gil Gerald“In early 1978 DC was going through the process of determining who was going to succeed Walter Washington as Mayor,” Mr. Gerald says. “From the sidelines, I read in the newspapers how Marion Barry was getting the support of the Gay community. However, the way I read it ‘Gay’ really meant ‘White Gay.’ It really was code for a community that I did not feel included in. The visible organizations were mostly White and I knew they didn’t represent the broader Gay community in DC. Then I saw an announcement in “Out” that spoke of the meeting of a new group called the DC Coalition. I went to the meeting and saw Billy Jones, who seemed to be chief organizer. I saw him as a charismatic individual, even romantic in the radical sixties mode.”
In a few short months there was a core group who would eventually serve as officers at various times. In addition to Mr. Jones and Mr. Gerald – who would become the first male executive director – the group included Darlene Garner, Louis Hughes, Renee McCoy, Jon Gee and Delores Berry. (Garner, McCoy and Berry would eventually become ordained ministers in the Metropolitan Community Church.) “We soon realized that we had [the potential] for a national, rather than a regional, organization in place.” Mr. Jones said. “We became the National Coalition of Black Gays (NCBG).”
However, Mr. Gerald, who says he has a “bias for structure and process,” had his concerns about the expanding organization. “I was excited by the growth but privately concerned that organizational skills or experience were not always prevalent in the group,” he said. Years later, his concern would prove well founded. But at the moment, NCBG’s emergence on the scene as a voice for Black Gays was perfectly timed and in 1979, during events leading up to and following the March on Washington, they would get the opportunity to test their growing clout.
In the weeks leading up to the March a horde of GLBT activists descended upon the city to help set up logistics. Nothing like this had ever been attempted and NCBG made its presence known.
“We made sure the organizers of the March on Washington took into account racial balance,” Louis Hughes said. “This was not going to be a White Gay event. There were mandates to have space for Third World Gays in DC.”
Gay MarchThat stand led to an accomplishment that all the founding members say was one of the high points in the life of the organization: The first National Conference of Third World Lesbians and Gays. Asian, Native American, Latino/a and Black Lesbians and Gays gathered at the Harambee House – a new Black owned hotel adjacent to Howard University – for two days of workshops, entertainment and networking. Audre Lorde delivered the keynote address and on the day of the Gay March, GLBT’s of color marched down Georgia Avenue, which runs through the heart of the Black community, to join the main March to the Mall.
“That was a thrill to see Third World Gays get together in 1979 and see the spin-off groups,” Mr. Hughes said. “An Asian group formed; an Hispanic group formed; everybody went back and formed groups with a new spirit that we had a Third World bond and our own agenda that was not under White Gay male authority. It was like planting a seed and watching rain forests grow everywhere.” However, it was an event that happened shortly after the March that would display the new clout and independence of the group. The National Gay Task Force Task (now NGLTF) parlayed the March on Washington into a meeting with White House officials to discuss Gay Rights but didn’t invite NCBG.
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